White House's 'Sesame Street' Approach to Communications Hits Wall

'We Tried Our Best' and 'I'm Sorry' Aren't Quick Fixes for Every Problem

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Imagine you've tuned in to one of those classic "Sesame Street" episodes. Not one of those YouTube videos in which they spoof such child-friendly material as "Homeland" and "Breaking Bad," but one in which the younger monsters have been disturbed by something intense. So one of the human adults, Gordon perhaps, arrives at the scene to explain things in very simple language -- as one would to children who might have a hard time grasping complex, abstract concepts.

Credit: Kelsey Dake

Now, imagine that after Gordon finishes explaining that sometimes bad things happen to good people, Abby and Zoe, after looking at each other for a moment, turned to Gordon and said, "Are you kidding me with this bullshit?"

This is, in essence, what's happened with the Obama administration's laughable attempts to explain away the many problems it's experienced with the rollout of the Affordable Care Act. It's crisis communications via "Sesame Street."

That's not to say that Obama himself is a "Sesame Street" president. While there is something childish in his hopeful overtures to Iran, it's hard to conceive of Grover ordering drone strikes on Oscar the Grouch or Big Bird tapping Cookie Monster's phone.

But I do get the distinct impression, based on his communication strategy, that he thinks he's presiding over a country full of "Sesame Street" characters. And he's Gordon. He shows up, says, "Let me be clear," then walks off the stage -- the show's over before anyone starts asking really pesky questions.

So when Healthcare.gov imploded and the commotion didn't die down after a few days, Obama showed up in the Rose Garden to tell us that bad things sometimes happen and that he was just as mad as the rest of us. Actually, he was even madder than the rest of us. "Nobody is madder than me about the fact that the website isn't working as well as it should," he said. Then he promised to fix it with something called a "tech surge." So don't worry your silly little heads, kids, go off now and tickle Elmo or something, Luis is on the job.

But here's Obama's problem -- aside from the fact that the "adult" in this situation seemingly learned about these problems at the same time we did. Suddenly, Americans were no longer Elmo and Grover. They weren't even Oscar the Grouch. They'd jumped to "The Muppet Show" and gone all Waldorf and Statler on Obama.

Which might explain why there was something almost petulant about follow-up communications. Listen, Obama seemed to be saying, we tried our best. Isn't that good enough for you? No? Well, then we're sorry. Now, are you happy? No? And then they rolled out The Count to further explain the massive successes of the plan, but poor guy couldn't seem to count past 100.

Just words
A "Sesame Street" communications strategy can only go so far. It only works when you're preaching to the converted or when you're dealing with something so big as to be almost insurmountable, like peace in the Middle East. Too much sugar-coating and hand-holding might sound like outright lying.

And when you're dealing with a billion-dollar segment of the economy that touches on a tangible, everyday product, one that literally is life and death for some people, "We're trying our best" are just words. People want practical, actual solutions. They want basic competence. And failing all of that, they want someone to pay.

Or, put another way, we are little monsters -- just not the cute, furry ones from "Sesame Street." Sometimes, we want blood. Why? Because had any of us screwed up a project of this scope at our jobs, we'd be just another one of those unemployment figures by the end of the day.

What would an anti-"Sesame Street" communications approach look like? For starters, it could quit acting like a spoiled child caught in the act when it's, well, caught in the act. And it could quit speaking down to Americans like they're gullible 6-year-olds (even if, when it comes to politics, we are just like gullible 6-year-olds).

Perhaps it could embrace a tactic from Obama the Campaign -- instead of Obama the Presidency: throwing people under the bus, quickly and mercilessly. That might mean firing a whole host of friends who were awarded contracts to build Healthcare.gov. And even that inner circle of people tasked with building a reality-deflecting force field around the president (this model's even better than his predecessor's!) And, last but not least, Kathleen Sebelius. She is undoubtedly a nice person who means well. But the buck has to stop somewhere. And it's likely a lot more dignified than trotting her out on "The Daily Show" and letting her squirm while reality trumps talking points.

And all the little monsters can sing "The Wheels on the Bus" while we wait.

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